- Written by Jessica Riel
- Published: 05 April 2018
Volunteer Benefits Counselor Margarete Couture“One of the things I thought about as I went into retirement was: what was I going to do? What did I want to do next?” says Margarete Couture. “And I decided that I was only going to do things that bring joy to me.”
Benefits counselors, overseen by Gretchen Smith, Benefits Counseling Program coordinator, assist elders and people with disabilities with learning about the benefits to which they are entitled and filling out applications. These volunteers help give people access to benefits programs offering assistance with home repair, weatherization, fuel assistance, disability modifications, foreclosure protection, utility discounts, and SNAP (food stamps).
Benefits counselors usually meet in an elder’s home or other setting of their choice. During their initial meeting and any that may follow, the counselors will work with an elder to assess their needs, explain what they can expect, help gather the necessary paperwork, and begin the application process. “Each elder has their own special story,” says Margarete. “It’s really important when you walk in that door to make a connection and take the time to listen."
Volunteering with elders through LifePath, Margarete has learned to “respect where they’re coming from and to honor their strong desire to be as independent as they can,” she says. “And that’s what I really like about doing this work. LifePath focuses so much on helping the elders stay as independent as they can in their lives.”
Margarete, who relocated to Bernardston from out of state, was also glad for the opportunity to meet people in her new community. “I didn’t know anybody and yet I felt a real need to connect with the community. And so when this opportunity came available, I became a volunteer.”
Similarly, when Gale Mason, who has a degree in Public Health, retired from working a nurse practitioner, she looked for a way to give back. “We lived in this area, but I commuted to Springfield. So my whole career has been working outside of these communities, which is one of the reasons I was so happy to find something here in this area that I can really grow with the community.”
When looking into volunteer opportunities, Gale says she was seeking “an established agency with the right goals, right philosophy – which was for me sort of the public health philosophy – and more personally being to do the things that I’ve seen in my own life and my experience are needed.”
Gale now volunteers with two programs at LifePath: Rides for Health, which offers door-through-door assisted transportation to elders in LifePath’s Home Care program, and Healthy Living, which offers volunteer-led, evidence-based workshops to people with chronic health conditions as well as their caregivers and loved ones, right in their own communities.
The Rides for Health program resonated with Gale. “This is such a great program. I mean, I've believed in it from the start, from the minute I heard about it. I'm committed to keeping people in their homes as long as they can stay in their homes. It's what I want; it's what my husband wants. It's what my parents wanted,” says Gale. “And I think that's much easier done locally because we don't have families that live all together in one community anymore.”
Gale also enjoys leading workshops with a co-facilitator in the Healthy Living program. “I’ve always liked to teach. My favorite is teaching community members,” says Gale. “I think people are just hungry for information. They like to learn about their bodies, their health, things they can do.”
Like Gale, Linda Ackerman is a volunteer in two programs. One is the Money Management program, which assists elders and people with disabilities who have difficulty writing checks or managing their basic living expenses for many reasons, including vision difficulties, memory difficulties, and physical disabilities.
Many in the community know Linda, who is the manager of Greenfield Savings Bank in Turners Falls. After training, the program matched Linda with a local elder in need of her help. “I call the gentleman I work with my partner, he calls me his partner,” says Linda. “We’re financial partners and trying to make sure his checkbook is within a reasonable balance. So that’s fun and rewarding to do.”
Linda also volunteers with the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, where Annmarie Newton volunteered for nearly a decade before retiring recently. It was not an easy decision. “We have a little joke over at LifePath,” Annmarie says. “‘Once you start with them, you never get away.’ And it's true! Because they make it so easy for you and so pleasant.”
It all started after she retired, Annmarie says. “I wanted to do something worthwhile to help people.” Upon learning about the volunteer opportunity, she signed up to visit the residents of a local nursing home.
“The ombudsman is an individual who goes into a long-term care facility and visits with and advocates on behalf of the residents,” says Trevor Boeding, Long-Term Care Ombudsman program director. “The whole goal of their work is elevate the quality of care that people receive and the quality of life that they participate in at the facility.”
Ombudsmen listen to residents and assist them by advocating and problem-solving with them in collaboration with the nursing facility staff. “I enjoy visiting with them and, once I get to know them, they feel very at ease with me and let me know if they have problems or if they're upset about something,” says Annmarie.
Another healthcare-focused program that relies on volunteers is SHINE (Serving the Health Insurance Needs of Everyone). Volunteer SHINE counselors work in their own communities to provide free, unbiased health insurance information, education, and assistance services one-on-one to Medicare beneficiaries and adults with disabilities.
"We're really an educational program. We help people with Medicare to figure out what the best option is for them in regards to their own healthcare needs," says Lorraine York-Edberg, Western Mass. regional SHINE program director. “A lot of times we'll get phone calls [from someone who] is really concerned and worried. We're able to work with that person and assist them. And, I can tell you, many of our conversations end with, ‘I'm going to sleep so much better tonight.’”
SHINE Counselor Larry Bezio enjoys the volunteer work the program offers, adding that he finds “personal satisfaction to be able to help someone” and “good socialization” with other counselors.
“SHINE volunteers come from every walk of life," says Lorraine. "Really anyone that had an interest and the ability to learn could do this.”
And, truly, with so many programs relying on volunteers, LifePath has an option for just about anyone seeking a chance to offer their skills in service to the community in return for a rewarding experience.
Margarete Couture encourages others to looks to LifePath for volunteer opportunities. “I frequently tell people that I am assisting elders and always look for an opportunity to encourage them to find what makes them happy.”
And, though Annmarie Newton has retired, she still encourages others to volunteer as well. “LifePath has made a lot of difference in my life. I've enjoyed it all.”
LifePath thanks all of our volunteers, past and present, for their service to the community.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a volunteer with LifePath, contact us.